A Closer Look at the Sac Bee’s Article on DA Jeff Reisig

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reisig-2009The Sacramento Bee yesterday ran a story on Sunday on Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig where the DA defends his anti-gang campaign.  Unfortunately the article reads more like a puff-promo piece than a piece that critically examines Mr. Reisig’s gang record or whether Yolo County faces the problem that the DA claims.

Perhaps in another publication, the writer would have immediately realized the absurdity of it all, comparing Jeff Reisig to famed gangster-hunter Eliot Ness.

“Since his election in 2006, and even before, the brawny, spike-haired prosecutor has established himself as the Eliot Ness of Yolo County. Just as the fabled “Untouchable” of 1920s Chicago focused on the bootlegging gangsters of his era, Reisig has directed his piercing gaze at the estimated 1,600 street gang members who he says are terrorizing portions of his jurisdiction between the Sacramento River and the hills below Lake Berryessa.”

The comparison is ironic is more recent historical accounts have shown that Eliot Ness’s role in the downfall of famed gangster Al Capone has been the subject of historic revisionism.  Hollywood simply created a hero where there was none.  Ness was in reality a minor figure who played a small role at best in hunting Capone, in fact, by most accurate accounts, Capone had no idea who Ness even was.  Capone was undone not by a single hunter, but by the work of federal investigators who were able to get him on tax evasion. 

The second irony is that while Yolo County might have some gangs, by most accounts, the gangs in Yolo are nothing compared to the violent street gangs of the larger cities.  Al Capone was the most notorious gangster alive, but Yolo County most years has less than ten homicides.  In fact, Reisig might point to the shooting deaths of two law enforcement officers, but it is unclear how much gang violence had to do with either of them.  The comparison to an overblown historical figure actually makes a good deal of sense given perhaps the relaties that Yolo County is not exactly Chicago of the 1930s either.

We have spoken much on these pages about the shooting Luis Gutierrez.  Naturally Mr. Reisig does not see a conflict with his office “conducting what he described as a “parallel” review of the shooting, independently interviewing witnesses at the same time Woodland police detectives and sheriff’s internal affairs investigators conducted their own probes.” 

And neither do we.  We simply do not take his account, which appears flawed from our vantage as the final word on the matter.  Nor do we believe that the investigation conducted by the Attorney’s General office that merely examined the original review for abuse of discretion, a very high standard to overturn on.

Former Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso has called the report “less than impressive.”

The Bee quotes him saying,

“I can’t help but conclude this is a killing that did not have to take place.  The question is, why did it? That’s basically what our commission will be investigating.”

(Full disclosure: my wife is one of the members on that commission).

Naturally, Reisig expressed skepticism about the commission.

“He said his report on the shooting has been reviewed by the state attorney general, and both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division are investigating. He joked that the only entity not to weigh in on the shooting is NATO.”

His response is telling:

“The loss of life is tragic, and I’m sad for everybody involved.  But we had a job to do and we did it, as openly and transparently as possible. We invited everyone in the system to come look at it.

“But I never felt like there was a reason for there to be controversy regarding what we’re doing.  We had a mandated duty to review the shooting. We made some findings, and they were reviewed by the attorney general and upheld. I don’t see the controversy.

“What I see is politics.”

First, the call has been for an independent investigation and what the Attorney General did was not an independent investigation.  It was an abuse of discretion review.  I have explained this standard before, but I think it bears repeating.

Abuse of discretion is a legal term that means, “A failure to take into proper consideration the facts and law relating to a particular matter; an Arbitrary or unreasonable departure from precedent and settled judicial custom.”

This is generally used in appellant law. “Where a trial court must exercise discretion in deciding a question, it must do so in a way that is not clearly against logic and the evidence. An improvident exercise of discretion is an error of law and grounds for reversing a decision on appeal.”

But all that really occurs here is a review of the investigation itself to determine if the ruling is reasonable based on the facts presented.

Thus in reviewing for abuse of discretion, there would be a problem if “the rendering of a decision by a court… is so unreasonable in light of the facts of the case or is such an unreasonable deviation from legal precedent that it must be reversed.”

Anything that falls short of that, ends up where this one did.

So here is the AG report’s conclusion:

“We reviewed your decision under an abuse of discretion standard. After a complete review of all available information, we have concluded that your decision was not unreasonable and thus did not constitute an abuse of discretion.”

What they did not do that people have called upon an independent body to do is conduct their own investigation, interview the officers and witnesses themselves, review the evidence, and produce their own unique report.  That is what I am calling for and what the justice community is calling for.

Second, Mr. Reisig shows he simply does not get it when he says, he never felt there was a reason for controversy.  The reason for controversy is that he is simply not trusted in some quarters.  So until a truly independent investigation comes forward, there will be those who do not find validity in his findings.  I share that view in part because of my lack of trust of the District Attorney and in part because of what I have expressed in other writings as shortcomings in the report.

Third, Mr. Reisig says he sees politics.  I say, what politics?  He’s up for election and there is no one even challenging him.  In what way is this politics?  Can’t it be that people simply do not agree with your conclusions?

The article is supposed to be on gangs, but there is little critical analysis of Reisig’s gang policies.  There is no discussion about the civil liberty implications of the injunction.  There is no discussion about the profiling of individuals in Woodland or West Sacramento.

They quote Reisig defending his injunction, without talking to the lawyers on the other side of the case who might present a counterview.

Reisig defended the injunction, which is slated for a hearing in April to determine whether it should become permanent. He said it might give pause to some good boys before they join a club that could get them in trouble.

The prosecutor took issue with the suggestion that the court order penalizes somebody for who they are rather than what they do. Enforcement only comes into play, Reisig said, if a named target violates a judge’s order.

“If someone’s a gang member, it’s not like they’re going to be arrested for being in a gang,” he said. “Nobody’s being arrested for having a barbecue in their front yard or for hanging out with their next-door neighbor. The key is the judge’s order, and if somebody’s found to be in violation of the judge’s order, they still have the right to go to trial.”

The last section of the article reads like the testimonial portion of a campaign ad.  They quote Reisig’s friends Supervisor Matt Rexroad, Sheriff Ed Prieto, Rod Beede (a defense attorney who supported Reisig in 2006), and Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg.  Each of them offer praise of Reisig.

Perhaps the most surprising statements come from former Public Defender Barry Melton and Supervisor Jim Provenza.

Mr. Melton has often been accused, despite his job as public defender, of being accepting of the DA’s policies.  But in this article, he offers the most critical criticism.

Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad said the gang problem “absolutely, positively shapes every aspect of law enforcement” in the jurisdiction. But former Public Defender Barry Melton believes that law enforcement, including his friend Reisig, has seriously overhyped it.

Melton said he thinks the estimate of Yolo’s 1,600 gang members is way overblown.

“I seriously doubt the number’s that big,” Melton said. “How do you make the determination? If I live on the block and my neighbor’s a gang member and I go have a beer with him, am I affiliated? The thought is that everything they do is in furtherance of what the gang is doing, and of course that is not true.”

The other surprise in the other direction is the praise of Supervisor Jim Provenza:

“I rank him very high,” said Davis-area Supervisor Jim Provenza, an attorney and registered Sacramento lobbyist who represents the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. “One of the good things about him, he’s flexible. He’s willing to listen and grow with the job.”

That gets us back to the gang policies, and there simply is little discussion of the gang policies, whether they are necessary, whether they have worked, whether they have unduly violated the rights of minorities in this county, we can go down the line. 

Another statement that is buried at the end should be shocking and appalling. 

“The number of felony trials in Yolo County has risen from 30 or 40 a year to 120 a year since Reisig took over.”

Let us put this into terms.  The number of felony trials in Yolo County has risen from 30 or 40 a year to 120 a year since Reisig took over.  Reisig took over in 2006.  Is there a change in the number of felonies in Yolo County since that time?  Not really.  The crime rate has been relatively stable, certainly it did not increase 300 to 400 percent in the last three years.  So either Reisig is going to argue that his predecessor undertried cases, or he is overprosecuting cases.  Given our lack of space and resources, that seems surprising.  Yet, the author never questions Reisig about that statement or why it is the case.

Also Reisig downplays the lawsuits.

“Along the way, Reisig has angered some people inside his office, including one former investigator who accused him of trying to politicize the gang injunction. Another sued him on allegations that the district attorney disclosed confidential materials on a disciplinary matter to another agency.  Reisig responded that when he took office, he shook up “a good-old-boy network” that included “some people who resented the accountability I was demanding of people on the job.””

Which is why the county has had to complete a settlement with both of the former employees.

For six months, the Vanguard has been studying the gang problems of Yolo County and in the coming weeks, we will be releasing some investigative work that sheds some light on it.  And we will have a major announcement early in January about a new project that we are beginning.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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7 thoughts on “A Closer Look at the Sac Bee’s Article on DA Jeff Reisig”

  1. Matt Rexroad

    David —

    “The fact, that Reisig might compare himself to an overblown historical figure actually makes a good deal of sense.”

    Please tell me when Jeff did this? I talked to the reporter and he brought up the Ness comparison before he had even talked to Reisig. Jeff did not compare himself to Ness.

    “What they did not do that people have called upon an independent body to do is conduct their own investigation, interview the officers and witnesses themselves, review the evidence, and produce their own unique report. That is what I am calling for and what the justice community is calling for.”

    Check your facts. They did look at more than just the first report.

    “The number of felony trials in Yolo County has risen from 30 or 40 a year to 120 a year since Reisig took over.”

    This is where you need to do some of your own investigation and not just use the Sacramento Bee article for your facts. …that is what I am calling for. Reisig and Rosenberg both deserve credit for cleaning out the people that were in the Monroe Detention Center awaiting trial. They have saved Yolo County millions of dollars by working to improve efficiency in this area.

    Matt Rexroad
    662-5184

  2. David M. Greenwald

    Matt:

    You’ve confirmed my suspicions that it was a poorly written and researched article.

    [quote]Check your facts. They did look at more than just the first report. [/quote]

    Did they or did they not conduct an abuse of discretion review of the case?

    [quote]This is where you need to do some of your own investigation and not just use the Sacramento Bee article for your facts. …that is what I am calling for.[/quote]

    Working on it.

  3. JustSaying

    Matt and David:

    Could we see some more specifics about this? How do the details reflect on the “undertried cases” vs. “overprosecuting cases” charge? It should be easy to determine the facts.

    Reisig and Rosenberg both deserve credit for cleaning out the people that were in the Monroe Detention Center awaiting trial. They have saved Yolo County millions of dollars by working to improve efficiency in this area.

  4. merixcoatl20

    Matt,

    I admire your entrenching crusade to regulate wasteful and unnecessary spending in Yolo County. (woodland public library, etc).

    But this dilemma is much more narrow than you have actually comprehended. Hear me out:

    Justice is not about efficiency; it is about discovering truth, regardless of how long the voyage may take and where it will lead. The Yolo County gang statistics have been examined before, unfortunately some people have a selective memory.

    You spoke about facts. Why wont the Yolo D.A release demographic information? Or information relating to age? Could it be that most gang members are Hispanics under 18 years old? I’m jumping to conclusions, but that could very well be a possibility.

    I wonder how many gang convictions are obtained through plea bargains? Of those, I wonder how many defendants obtained a public defender, for lack of resources?

    It appears to me the Jeff Reisig is doing a great job speeding up and streamlining the way “gang members” (allegedly) are being convicted. That’s fine—if the justice system were a business.

    It is not about convicting people, it is about giving a fair punishment to the guilty. Just recently, the D.A lost a case—28 years to life, 18 year old gang member; allegedly. In this case, if it were not for an attorney (public defender suggested taking the plea bargain) an innocent man would have received heavy prison time.

    The point is, the justice system is not to be handled as a business. I pay taxes, and if I ever go to court; I want just justice- not speedy justice.

    Reisig is right on one point. It is all political. He is getting ready for campaigning, and needs to show that he is putting criminals behind bars. (young kids, usually)

    You might remember this from law school, Blackstone’s formulation: “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”

    We are never going to have a perfect justice system. But the guilty should never be imprisoned at the expense of even a few innocent.
    Reisig’s political aspirations might be doing just that.

  5. Matt Rexroad

    Merixcoatl20:

    You are right. We will never have a perfect justice system.

    Couple things — we had a few people that sat in county jail for close to seven years waiting for “justice”. That is extremely expensive for the county. So if you think that it took that long for justice — then we will just disagree.

    What are Reisig’s political aspirations. He could have applied to be a judge and make more money two years ago and he probably would have gotten appointed. He has never shown me any indication of serving in any other capacity than DA. You may know something more than I do on this.

    Also — I indicated that Reisig deserved some of the credit for this. Some also goes to the presiding judge — Dave Rosenberg. The presiding judge does have to look at efficiency of the court system in addition to the justice issues.

    Under your standard we would have a system where trials would be endless. In the end we must act reasonably to provide justice. That involves making decisions and administering the programs.

    Take a look at the number of trials that are being done each year in Yolo County and the average number of trials being done by each judge. They are just working harder and more efficiently in civil and criminal court.

    Matt Rexroad
    662-51844

  6. Patriot

    Mr. Rexroad:

    Let me state that I have served as a City Councilman and Mayor in California, so I have some familiarity with what you deal with on a daily basis. I also served over a decade on active duty in the US military and serve as the CEO of a public company.

    Boy, am I glad I live in a different county! For a public official to state that ANYTHING other than the truth should be the ONLY consideration scares the hell out of me. Cost should never be a factor in a decision regarding someone’s liberty.

    Your statement that a defendant was held for SEVEN YEARS before trial, if correct, sounds more like China or Korea, not the U.S. If a prosecutor cannot bring a case to trial in seven years, could there really be a case?

    As an elected official, shouldn’t your primary concern be for constituents who were held without trial for nearly seven years? Remember under the Constitution, these people were presumed innocent. How is it that elected officials, such as yourself, allowed citizens to sit in jail awaiting trial for a period of time that equals your entire elected service?

    I am shocked.

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